Every NFL team aspires to find the next Adam Thielen, an in-state Division-II football star that climbed the ladder and turned into a handsomely-paid Pro Bowler.
But just because the Vikings already have a Thielen, doesn’t mean they aren’t trying to find another one. Their two undrafted free agent receivers both come from non-power conference schools in the FCS: Davion Davis from Sam Houston State and Alexander Hollins from Eastern Illinois.
Minnesota looks to continue its trend of filling out the receiver position with under-the-radar acquisitions. Thielen’s story is well-documented, Stefon Diggs was a fifth-round pick, Brandon Zylstra played Division-III football before playing in the CFL and landing with the Vikings, and Chad Beebe was a rookie tryout pickup from Northern Illinois.
And it wasn’t long ago that the Vikings carved out a starting role for Charles Johnson, a former seventh-round pick from Division-II Grand Valley State.
Is there another hidden gem in their midst in 2019?
“It’s probably one of the most hungry groups that I’ve been around, from the veterans down,” Thielen told Zone Coverage. “Guys want to get better, guys want to make plays, and it’s fun to be around a group of guys like that.”
Though it may seem like the Vikings have made the art of discovering unheralded receivers look easy, it’s not. Thielens don’t grow on trees.
Over the past 20 NFL seasons, there have been just 56 undrafted receivers to debut and go on to amass 1,000 or more career receiving yards.
Of those 56, just 16 played below the FBS level in college. Nate Washington headlines the list after his career at Division-II Tiffin. And before that 20-year cutoff, Rod Smith debuted with the Denver Broncos after graduating from Missouri Southern State. His 11,000-plus-yard career in Denver is the gold standard for sub-FBS undrafted receivers.
Other undrafted, small-school success stories include Tyrell Williams, Seth Roberts and Andre Holmes. What most of these upstarts have in common is a sparkling college resume that caught the eye of pro scouts. Ten of the 16 aforementioned UDFAs had at least one college season with 1,000 receiving yards. That criteria fits both current Vikings UDFAs.
Davis, the former Sam Houston State Bearkat, popped as a junior when he finished the season with 1,206 yards and a Southland Conference-leading 17 receiving touchdowns with Sam Houston’s high-powered offense. He also added two rushing TDs and a pair of punt return TDs.
His bid for a second straight 1,000-yard season came up short as his senior year ended early due to a lower left leg injury, but Davis still found the end zone 11 times in eight games.
Davis credits former teammates Gerald Thomas and Derek Edwards for helping shape him into the receiver he is today. Both Thomas and Edwards were above Davis on the depth chart early in his career before transferring to Colorado and Texas Tech, respectively.
“My big brother Gerald and Derek, they really helped establish me,” Davis told Zone Coverage. “Watching them really made me take my game to the next level. I took parts of their game and put it to my own, so those two are really talented receivers and them helping me out really elevated me.”
Davis dons the No. 16 with the Vikings, but he wears a necklace that shows the No. 14, his college number. Of course, Davis won’t be stealing Diggs number any time soon, but it’s hard not to see a little bit of Diggs in Davis’s college highlight reel. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound receiver made his mark at Sam Houston State with great mid-air adjustments to the football, contested catch ability and tough yards after the catch. His lack of straight-line speed could be a red flag, as Davis posted the same 40-yard dash time as Laquon Treadwell, 4.64 seconds, at his pro day. He’ll need to find a way to separate from professional defensive backs to leave an impression this summer.
He plans to use the Vikings’ top two receivers as models for route-running, a skill that Diggs and Thielen seem to have down to a science. The two veterans have been generous in their advice for the young group.
“Watching [Thielen], I try to implement the route running, running out of breaks, not turning your head right away,” Davis said. “I try to put some of that stuff into my game, and being able to be around him and Diggs, I think it’s really going to help us a lot.”
Hollins comes in as more of a burner with sub-4.50 speed. While he weighed no more than 170 pounds at Eastern Illinois, his speed helped him on deep passes downfield. Hollins recorded nine catches, 127 yards and three touchdowns in last year’s season opener against the SEC’s Arkansas.
The 6-foot-1 receiver started collegiately at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi before landing with Eastern Illinois as a junior. He debuted with 694 yards in his first season, then exploded with 1,102 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior.
“I was a speedster,” Hollins told Zone Coverage, “and I had pretty good release off the line, so those were my two strengths.”
Davis set the Southland career record for touchdown receptions, while Hollins led his team in receiving two straight years. But both will need to work their way back up the depth chart. While there is opportunity in Minnesota, there is also a numbers battle. Davis and Hollins are two out of nine receivers battling for the three or four available spots behind Diggs and Thielen. And they’ll also be competing with seventh-round picks Dillon Mitchell and Bisi Johnson.
For rookie receivers, making an impression often correlates with how quickly they can pick up the offense, especially because receivers have more formational movement than any other offensive position. Rookies typically spend extra time in the meeting rooms with their position coaches to play catch-up.
“When they get here, we don’t slow down necessarily for them,” said Stefanski, “we keep going with the vets. … There’s a lot to intake. There’s a lot when you get out here on the practice field, you break the huddle and you can see the computers working, so for those guys it’s important to stay in their book.”
Thielen knows as well as anyone the grind of having to ascend the NFL ladder and the pitfalls a young receiver might face. Too slow to learn the playbook? Injured? Outnumbered by other receivers? It’s easy for a pass-catcher on the fringe of the roster to get overlooked and discarded. That’s what made Thielen’s rise so improbable.
“It’s your first time coming from a Division-II or a smaller school, it’s the first time that your life revolves around the game,” Thielen said, “and you have to put in the time, but you have the time to put into it. It’s really just the time commitment and focusing all your time on football.”